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Firsts: Why White Zombie, the first zombie feature, still scares us

Contributed by
Jan 22, 2018

Buried in the vault of '30s cinema far below the horror smashes of the era like Dracula and Frankenstein is cult thriller White Zombie. A bizarre fairy-tale-meets-nightmare about a bride tricked into inhaling tetrodotoxin has no blood or gore, let alone any crazed flesh-ripping scramble for human viscera (though there is Bela Lugosi). So what about this obscure black and white vision still makes it echo in the memories of its genre?

Zombie movies didn't exist in 1932. Directors Victor and Edward Halperin, who had survived the transition from silent to sound films, had a sixth sense when it came to creating films that would appeal to the audience of that era. This was the time of Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Vampyr, when every studio was finding a monster and running with it. The Halperins were looking to unearth their own. But why zombies?

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Credit: Universal Pictures 

"In choosing zombies, they were probably doing what other producers were doing: trying to find horror stories different than those already produced," premier White Zombie and Bela Lugosi historian Gary Rhodes explained to SYFY WIRE. Universal brought the literature of Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker to life as Warner Bros. used some mad science to turn Dr. X from a stage play to a film. While it is known that the Halperins borrowed so heavily from William B. Seabrook's book The Magic Island (to the point it was surprising they weren't haunted by any lawsuits), Rhodes believes they were also influenced by the Broadway play Zombie, despite its short run.

Zombies had just begun shambling onto the screen at the time, though never in a feature-length film. Walter Futter's unsettling series Curiosities shocked moviegoers with stories and footage of what were supposedly zombies. It is possible the Halperins also caught the virus from there.

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Credit: Universal Pictures

White Zombie only seems like a vintage romance made of bouquets and Clara Bow lips until Neil Parker's fiancé Madeleine Short becomes the obsession of plantation owner Charles Beaumont. He seeks to make Madeleine his by striking a deal with the closest thing to the devil, voodoo master Murder Legendre, played by Bela Lugosi in a performance many believe rivals even Dracula in its portrayal of pure unmitigated evil.

"Even Lugosi's Dracula has moments where he seems sympathetic, as when he extolls the "glorious" virtues of being dead, rather than undead," Rhodes admitted. "By contrast, Murder is completely evil, without any redeeming traits."

Legendre insists the only way for Charles to have Madeleine is to turn her into a zombie who will be under his ultimate control. Sniffing a poisoned flower is all it takes for the naïve bride to collapse and appear dead on her wedding day, which soon turns into a funeral. It is only after she rises from the grave that Charles realizes what he has done and pleads with Murder to release Madeline from this unconscious state of life in death. Black magic cannot just be undone on a whim.

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Credit: Universal Pictures

Murder Legendre is, as Rhodes describes him, "a bizarre concoction" of a voodoo master whose unknown origins only make him more terrifying. That the just appears out of the darkness which some of the undead came staggering out of minutes before is pure nightmare fuel. His powers are not restricted to a zombifying potion, since he seems to be able to use a sort of supernatural mind control on his subjects that involves secretive hand motions and a focused stare.

He may also be part mad scientist if you think of that smoke bomb he disappears in near the end. Lugosi's mastery of the villain, not to mention his uncanny resemblance of the 19th-century visuals of Mephistopheles, almost make you think his spirit is reaching out through space and time to manipulate you from the screen. He is, in himself, a special effect.

With limited options for other special effects, the Halperins had other ways of using dark magic to conjure the eerie atmosphere of White Zombie. For a film with such a low budget, the sets were grandiose — because they were pieces of Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dracula and The Cat and the Canary rented from Universal. Those great halls and menacing dark corridors were the disembodied backdrops of Dracula and Frankenstein. Arthur Martinelli was a wizard with lighting and camerawork that gave it the quality of a dream vision in which the way light and shadow fall on Bela Lugosi's face burns itself into your memory.

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Credit: Universal Pictures 

"Even the air temperature plays a role," said Rhodes. "At one point, you can see icy breath emanating from Lugosi's mouth. Optical printing marks the film, both in its title sequence and split-screen effects. But as much as anything else, White Zombie uses sound effects and music to great advantage, much more than any previous horror movie."

It's unsettling from the start. In the opening scene, ghostly echoes of voodoo drums and guttural chants that follow Neil and Madeleine through the humid Haitian night as they ride to Charles Beaumont's plantation. Of course, Madeleine should be more terrified of Beaumont and his questionable ethics than any strange sounds or empty eyes she may have encountered on the way. The zombies are a special effect in themselves; they watch the living from a distance, and, later, work the grinding and churning of Beaumont's sugar mill with motions so mechanical they cannot possibly be human.

The undead of White Zombie would probably not recognize the reanimated corpses that trample all over the parking lots and back alleys of The Walking Dead even if they had some semblance of consciousness. Most Walking Dead fans probably wouldn't even recognize White Zombie, whose negative critical reception overshadowed how well it performed as an independent film in 1932. More walkers followed in movies such as I Walked With a Zombie and the much-maligned Revenge of the Zombies. Zombies only began to crave human flesh in 1968 with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which left a trail of brains for TV and movie zombies to fall all the way down to the walkers Rick Grimes and his band of post-apocalyptic survivors shoot down every Sunday night.

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Credit: Universal Pictures 

Even with the absence of gore, White Zombie is a dark spell that will bewitch you even if the sets are reused and the acting (sans Lugosi's) sometimes verges on smarmy melodrama. There is much to be exhumed from its black-and-white shadows even without gnashing teeth and bites to the jugular. Just watch it as if you had never seen CGI or extreme SFX makeup, and the eyes of Murder Legendre will linger in your nightmares.

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